Research Family Photographers in Old Newspapers

By Maureen A. Taylor

The name and address of a photo studio usually found on a card photograph contains clues to help you learn more about when and where a picture was taken. That information can narrow a time frame for a family photograph.


While city directories are a standard resource for leaning more about when a studio was in business at a particular address, don’t overlook using newspapers as a source. A directory features names, addresses and sometimes advertisements, but an article can give you more details about their business.

Here are a few reasons to look at the news.

Historical Obituaries
An obituary will mention details about a photo studio that you won’t necessarily find in a directory such as why a studio opened to what happened after the owner died. You might find facts about when the photographer moved to the area in which your ancestor lived or if the studio traveled the countryside looking for customers. These little bits of information provide a span of dates that you can narrow further by looking at clothing clues and your family history information.

A specific word in the imprint can refer to a particular type or style of picture. For instance, gem referred to tiny tintypes about the size of your thumbnail, but later in the nineteenth century the word also referred to tiny paper photographs on card stock. Following a photographer in advertisements can give you a date for the first time that studio offered that service. If you’re curious about how much your ancestors paid for a picture look at the ads. In the Louisville Daily Courier for June 9, 1858 you’ll find several ads for studios offering ambrotypes (a picture on glass) with prices ranging from a quarter to fifty cents.

News reports can take the form of a history of a particular business to profiles of the owners. When looking for information on the Manchester Brothers studio of Providence, RI using, “Holiday Notices” in the Providence Evening Press for December 15, 1875 popped up in a search. This piece mentioned local shops to visit for Christmas gifts including Manchester Brothers photographs and images on porcelain.

Newspaper Databases

Digital newspaper archives exist in many forms from huge databases on, and which all require a membership to the free database offered by the Library of Congress, Chronicling America.

  • Start with a specific search then broaden it if you don’t find results. Narrow the time frame using advanced search features and quotation marks around keywords.

Also look for statewide newspaper resources like the California Digital Newspaper database mentioned in last week’s post on the King Family. Start by searching “digital newspaper archive” and the name of the town in which the photographer operated.

  • If you don’t find a newspaper for the appropriate town, try contacting the local historical society or public library to see if they have newspapers in their holdings.

Pay It Forward

If you blog or participate in social media, publish your research online so that other genealogists can find it. There is no comprehensive publication for all photographers, so your research is really important. It can spare another genealogist from starting their search from scratch.

You’ll find more tips on researching family photographs in The Family Photo Detective.

Identify your old mystery family photos with these guides by Maureen A. Taylor:

  • Family Photo Detective: Learn How to Find Genealogy Clues in Old Photos and Solve Family Photo Mysteries
  • Fashionable Folks: Bonnets and Hats 1840-1900
  • Finding the Civil War in Your Family Album
  • Hairstyles 1840-1900
  • Photo-Organizing Practices
  • Preserving Your Family Photographs
  • Searching for Family History Photos: How to Get Them Now
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